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How Helpful is Virtual Reality in Treating Depression?

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By Jaden Francis - - 5 Mins Read
Illustration of a person wearing a metaverse VR headset
Virtual Reality | Brian Penny via Pixabay

Engaging and immersive, Virtual reality (VR) has emerged as a valuable tool for treating depression providing unique opportunities for therapeutic interventions that can alleviate depression symptoms and promote mental well-being.

Several researches, including a prominent one conducted by Stanford University, have demonstrated that virtual therapy can be equally effective as real-life activities in addressing depression.

Dr Kim Bullock led this study, which was published in JMIR Mental Health and involved 26 individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

The study involved two groups, one group participated in traditional activities, while the other used VR headsets for activities like mini-golf and world tours. Both groups experienced a comparable decrease in their depression scores.

Dr. Bullock, who directs Stanford’s Neurobehavioral Clinic and Virtual Reality and Immersive Technologies (VRIT) program, noted, "VR makes outpatient treatment for depression symptoms straightforward and effective and helps overcome barriers to accessing mental health care."

The Stanford VRIT team has also used VR to manage various mental health issues, from anxiety and phobias to pain and social skills training. However, the use of VR to treat major depressive disorder and other common mood disorders has not been widely studied.

"Given how many people suffer from depression, we believe VR could have a significant impact," Bullock explained, citing the ease of access to treatment as a critical benefit.

For initial tests, Bullock and Margot Paul, a clinical assistant professor, used VR headsets pre-loaded with therapeutic content in a small feasibility study.

Encouraged by the positive results, they conducted a more extensive, controlled trial to explore a more profound, more interactive VR experience.


Mental health patient talking with a therapist
Mental health therapy session | Shutterstock


All participants who were diagnosed with major depressive disorder and were stable on their medications met with a clinical psychologist at Stanford on a weekly basis during the trial.

The psychologist assigned homework related to behavioral activation. This involved committing to at least four enjoyable weekly activities, which could be experienced in virtual reality or real life.

Thirteen participants received a VR Meta Quest 2 headset and a list of potential activities they could do using the headset, including games, travel videos, fitness classes, chat programs, and educational apps.

The other thirteen were instructed to plan and participate in real-life activities, like community outings or socializing with friends.

Both groups of participants reported significant improvements in their symptoms of depression and better scores on a commonly used scale for measuring depression, following the completion of a four-week study.

Those who used VR devices during the study found that the virtual activities facilitated greater interaction with the world outside.

Also read: How Performing Acts of Kindness Helps You Fight Depression


Paul noted, "One consistent piece of feedback was that VR motivated users to be more active in real life. It provided just enough encouragement to get them moving."

However, some users struggled to set up the VR devices and needed regular reminders to participate in the activities.

In response, Paul and Bullock created a new VR app to help address these challenges.

The researchers believe that more extensive studies are needed to optimize the use of VR in treating depression and to identify which patient groups would benefit most. They also see a need to train mental health professionals to prescribe VR treatments effectively.

Finally, virtual reality shows great potential in treating depression and similar mood disorders. Through its capacity to deliver engaging and interactive therapy sessions, VR presents a unique and effective method of mental healthcare that is widely available.